Could Nuscale Make Nuclear Smaller, Safer, Cheaper?

May 8, 2019

Another contender for “new” nuclear power.

While I wish them all the luck in the world, I have questions.

Nothing in the NPR story about potential for proliferation. Nothing about waste. (see below for Nuscale FAQ on these questions)
First working unit to be on line in 2026 – assuming a decade or so to prove it out and get investor’s confidence – not fast enough to help in pre-2030 build out of clean energy.
Obviously if it works, there’s potential after that – not hard to imagine a role for small modular generators like this.


Nuclear power plants are so big, complicated and expensive to build that more are shutting down than opening up. An Oregon company, NuScale Power, wants to change that trend by building nuclear plants that are the opposite of existing ones: smaller, simpler and cheaper.
The company says its plant design using small modular reactors also could work well with renewable energy, such as wind and solar, by providing backup electricity when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
The 98 nuclear reactors operating in the country now are large because they were designed to take advantage of economies of scale. Many are at risk of closing in the next decade, largely because they can’t compete with less expensive natural gas and renewable energy.
To respond to this dilemma, “we’ve developed economies of small,” says Jose Reyes, chief technology officer and co-founder of NuScale.
Instead of one big nuclear reactor, Reyes says his company will string together a series of up to 12 much smaller reactors. They would be built in a factory and transported by truck to a site that would be prepared at the same time.

“You’re making your [reactor] pool and all that stuff on-site,” says Reyes. “In parallel, you’re manufacturing the modules, and then that cuts the construction schedule to about half.”

NuScale says it also has simplified how the plants are operated in ways that make them safer.
The 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan happened when a tsunami knocked offline the emergency generators that cooled the reactors and spent fuel, leading to reactor meltdowns.
“We’ve looked at ways the systems have failed in the past and tried to remove those kind of failure modes from our design,” says Karin Feldman, vice president for the company’s Program Management Office.
NuScale’s design doesn’t depend on pumps or generators that could fail in an emergency because it uses passive cooling. The reactors would be in a containment vessel, underground and in a huge pool of water that can absorb heat.
That means that even a reactor that fails would still be safe. “It doesn’t require any additional water,” says Feldman. “It doesn’t require AC or DC power. It doesn’t require any operator action. And it can stay in that safe configuration for as long as is needed.”

NuScale plans to build its first nuclear power plant at the Idaho National Lab. The electricity will power the lab and go to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS, which serves 46 member utilities in six Western states.
The organization was looking for a carbon-free source of electricity to generate power when intermittent sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines are offline. And it turns out NuScale’s modular design is good for that.
Big nuclear reactors run all the time, but NuScale’s collection of smaller reactors can be ramped up and down relatively quickly. Batteries can back up intermittent sources of renewable energy, too, but UAMPS CEO Doug Hunter says NuScale’s reactors are cheaper.
“Each module would have enough fuel in it for up to two years of operations, so it’s like we’re a battery that has a two-year charge to it,” says Hunter.
NuScale still must convince the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that its plant design is safe. The company cleared the first phase of that review last year.
Licensing this design is challenging. It’s so different from existing plants that regulations must be changed to accommodate it. That worries some watchdogs and critics.
“My concern about NuScale is that they believe so deeply that their reactor is safe and doesn’t need to meet the same criteria as the larger reactors, that it’s pushing for lots of exemptions and exceptions,” says Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Lyman argues that even with NuScale’s passive safety design, things could go wrong. He’ll be among those watching regulators closely as NuScale pushes to have its first power plant built and operating in 2026. – FAQ:

5. Doesn’t having SMRs at more sites create a higher security and proliferation risk?
The NuScale plant design builds in a number of intrinsic features that further reduce security and proliferation risks, even compared to traditional nuclear plants, which are already considered highly secure. The very resilient plant design, which is achieved through system simplification, reliance on natural phenomena for backup safety systems, and application of defense-in-depth principles reduces the plant’s vulnerability to the impacts from an external attack or internal sabotage. Additional design features ensure that control over the nuclear fuel elements is both secure and verifiable. All safety-related equipment resides inside a very robust reactor building, the majority of which is below

9. What about the nuclear waste problem—won’t NuScale make it worse?
The amount of used or spent nuclear fuel produced in a nuclear plant is dwarfed by the voluminous waste produced from most other energy technologies. The good news about nuclear waste produced in a NuScale plant is that it is exactly the same as most of the other 440 nuclear plants operating world-wide; hence, we know a lot about its characteristics and how to treat it. Specifically, we know very accurately the composition of the discharged fuel, the radiation hazard, the rate of decay of the self-generated heat, and its amenability to recycling, should the U.S. decided to embark on this path similar to other major nuclear energy countries.

43 Responses to “Could Nuscale Make Nuclear Smaller, Safer, Cheaper?”

  1. Canman Says:

    Michael Shellenberger has been making the case for larger nuclear plants. He has a new column on it in forbes:

    He shows that economies of scale are greatly underapreciated.


    > Solar farms, which benefit from economies of scale, produce electricity at about half the cost of rooftop solar systems;

    > Wind energy has come down in price thanks in large measure to increasing the size of turbine blades and height of towers;

    > Natural gas turbines increased in size 30-fold — from 10 MW to 300 MW — since 1970;

    > Even when larger nuclear plants take longer and are more expensive to build, the electricity they produce is still cheaper than it is from smaller ones;

    > Nuclear reactors grow larger and higher in number, per plant, around the world, to achieve economies of scale;

    > From South Korea to the U.S. to France, utilities buy larger reactors to reduce costs.

    Why is this? Mostly because nuclear reactors, gas turbines, wind turbines, and solar farms can be made — and operated — at incrementally larger sizes without correspondingly large increases in the number of people required to build and operate them.

    • Canman Says:

      Shellenberger also has an interview with Scott Adams, where he goes into a lot of detail:

    • jfon Says:

      Nuclear reactors are grossly overstaffed; lowering the regulatory burden on them would help there. Nuscale is planning to build 50MW reactors, but have a dozen of them run from one control room.
      When the peak of reactor building was happening, plants were about 600 to 900MW. As they’ve got bigger, the number of foundries that can make the 400 ton forged pressure vessels has shrunk, and the size of the cranes, and work forces, to assemble these behemoths has grown, to the point where only very experienced teams can handle it. Russia’s Rosatom has one of the world’s most active nuclear programs, but they still managed to drop a pressure vessel recently, while building a plant in Belarus.
      Gas turbines can be built in a year, and are usually about 300MW. They can fit easily into a grid, without jumping too far forward beyond the demand increase, and can start paying off the interest on their loans quickly. They’re being built by the hundreds, not the handful a year of nuclear reactors. That’s the market niche that the new molten salt designs are aiming for. They don’t need pressure vessels, since there’s no water in the core, nor a containment big enough to absorb a steam explosion, and they’re small enough to be built in a yard and then shipped whole to a site. Nuscale is moving in a good direction, but it’s still too expensive for the third world countries that will have most of the demand growth over the next half century.

  2. redskylite Says:

    Interesting read and thoughts from contributors above, if the Small Modular Reactor offering finally matures, it will offer an interesting addition and could complement and blend in with a mixture of energy producing options.

    Solar is great, but vulnerable, to extreme events, that eclipse the sun, such as intense dust storms, volcanic activity etc. SMR’s would add another layer of stability.

    The big question is, will we continue with large centralized facilities or go distributed,

    I personally think power generation will go the way of computer power, that is distributed, (and without reliance on single source) and these SMR’s will fit in to this picture perfectly.

    I would say this is an exciting time in the energy field, let’s leave the new generation professionals to implement the latest technologies, and keep our own prejudices and bigotries out of it (and I admit to having some). The urgency of addressing climate change dictates we drop our old objections and listen to the people being trained to address the emergency. Let go, for gods sake. Let the pro’s do it.

  3. rsmurf Says:

    So y’all think us humans are ENTITLED to electricity and power 24/7? Why? Maybe we need to follow the cycle of the planet and live within those means. So no power when the wind and sun don’t shine!

    • redskylite Says:

      That is fine, you could live on an alternative commune and follow that doctrine, perhaps some already do.

      But what about hospitals, cross time zone/international interests, and emergency services – many people are dependent on power these days. It’s the way of life many populations and countries have evolved into.

      • rsmurf Says:

        “It’s the way of life many populations and countries have evolved into”. I’m not sure evolved is the right word, accustomed to, is better. But my grandparents did not have electricity at their farm well into the thirties. So it’s not like it’s impossible. My dad collected water from a hand pump I believe was 1/2 mile away. We might consider it again. Sometimes things look or seem strange till you try it. We might actually be able to see the stars again.

        • redskylite Says:

          Same here my grandfolks existed without electricity until at least the late 1960’s in rural England- but times have changed and we have moved on in many countries.

          Maybe we have moved on too much, but difficult to go back now.

          Try convincing the Kardashian/Game of Thrones watchers of that.

          Europe ‘takes too much of Earth resources’

          People in Europe are snatching more than their fair share of the world’s resources, a report says today.

          It says Europeans emit too much carbon, eat too much food, use large amounts of timber and occupy too much built space.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      A definite point, also a flying pig thought. Flames could be coming out the ground and populations would still demand power.

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